Rocham H’pnhieng was eight years old and her younger sister six when they lost their way in the thick forests on the Cambodia-Vietnam border. That was 18 years ago. In the second week of January 2007, a little Cambodian village on the edge of the forest heard of a naked ‘jungle woman’ who had been caught trying to steal food from a villager’s lunch-pack. Rocham’s father, Sal Lau, a local policeman, ‘identified’ the ‘jungle woman’ as his own long-lost daughter from a scar on her right arm. The woman can’t speak or understand a word of any known language, apparently walks like an ape, tries to remove the clothes she is made to wear by her ‘family’ and makes it clear that she intends to go back to the jungle at the first given opportunity. She is a stark reminder of the worlds that exist on the fringes of human civilisation.
And sometimes, these primal worlds exist not deep in the heart of a forest but in a town square. Ivan Mishukov, an abandoned six-year-old from Reutova, near Moscow, was found living with a pack of stray dogs in 1988. Mishukov would respond with snarling savagery whenever attempts were made to rescue him from the streets. And each time, ‘his’ pack too would come to his defence. Eventually, Mishukov was trapped by local authorities and rehabilitated successfully.
John Ssebunya, another six-year-old was found near Kabonge, Uganda in 1991, hiding in a tree. When villagers tried to capture the boy, not only did he resist capture like Mishukov, but like the stray dogs, the vervet monkeys that had adopted Ssebunya rose to his defence and pelted rescuers with sticks and the like. Ssebunya too was successfully rehabilitated and became famous as a choirboy and his story was told by BBC in a documentary titled Living Proof. Fortunately for Mishukov and Ssebunya, they were rescued within a few years of ‘turning wild’ and thus their rehabilitation was complete and successful. But for most ‘feral children’ (children who escaped into the wilderness and started living wild or with other wild/feral animals), it becomes impossible to fully integrate oneself back into society. They find it difficult to pick up a language or wear clothes and they constantly want to go back to their wild ways even years after being rescued.
As a child, like perhaps many other children, I too at times, and especially after being disciplined at home for matters that I then deemed unfair, had often pondered over the possibility of running off into a jungle and living the idyllic life of a Mowgli or Tarzan. But there are many whose circumstances are far more compelling. Without having read a page of Edgar Rice Burrough or Kipling, children, usually from broken or violent homes head out into the unknown far more often than we might realise. Only a handful of tales are told when a survivor surfaces but most are lost and forgotten, like Rocham’s younger sister.
Instead of the romantic ideal of a ‘Return to Eden’, most feral children suffer from malnutrition and many die young even after being rescued. They suffer Psychosocial Dwarfism characterised by repressed physical growth, speech and learning disabilities, and near imperviousness to physical pain and discomfort. Feral children are an unfortunate reality that proves how much human beings depend on each other to remain human. Unlike most animals, who are creatures of instinct, human beings depend as much, if not more on culture and learned behaviour. Therefore, a wild wolf pup could be tamed to a certain extent but it will always retain its wild instincts and would always remain a wolf, but children brought up wild with wolves (see Slip Stream) rarely exhibit human(e) behaviour and almost never become completely normal. Rehabilitation in the wild for captive-bred or hand reared wild animals has always been easier than the rehabilitation of feral children back into civilisation.
Hopefully, Rocham will be able to return to a human existence soon enough but her story and the story of other such unfortunate children only underlines the importance and impact of upbringing for the child, the family and society at large. Perhaps the hand that rocks the cradle of every genius who can create a plane out of a dream or death and destruction out of a plane was far more responsible for the ingenious time-marks that dot our civilisation and it’s history than we might care to accept or imagine. It is a thought that for better or worse, both overwhelms and empowers….